Monday, January 6, 2014

Review: Superman Unchained #5

Superman Unchained #5 came out last week and continues to be a very satisfying read. It seems to exist outside of the current DCU, unfettered by current relationships and characterization, and pretty layered in its storytelling. This feels almost like an All-Star or Classified comic right now. And I am not complaining.

Writer Scott Snyder has been moving several plotlines forward without necessarily linking them. As a result, I have been wondering how all these threads with eventually weave together. In this issue, we finally start to see the linkages. And that makes me an entertained reader.

Despite that connectivity, the plot lines continue to churn forward, both coming to an apparent cliffhanger to a climax at the end of this issue. So we haven't all come together quite yet. And some of the bigger mysteries, specifically about the Wraith, remain unsolved keeping my puzzler puzzling away.

Jim Lee continues to provide the bulk of the art on the book although it seems like a stripped down version of his art, less cross-hatching and detail work. More impressive are the Dustin Nguyen pages, sepia soaked flashbacks that veer to horror at the end.

We start out with one of those flashbacks as Clark first shows the ability to overcome gravity as he saves Lana from slipping off a hay silo.

This opens up an ongoing theme in this particular issue, of Clark hiding his super-abilities while in the guise of a 'normal' human and what that means now and in the future.

As I said above, Nguyen shines in these pages, bringing a weathered old photo feel to the memories. And the linework gives it a golden age simplicity. Really nice stuff here.

While Superman brings Wraith the the Fortress, we catch up with Lois who has been kidnapped by Ascension.

At last we begin to see what is connecting the Wraith plotline and the Ascension plotline. It turns out that the leader of the group is Jonathan Rudolph, grandson of the man who created The Machine, the government black ops group that controls the Wraith.

Still wearing electronic masks (confronting Lois with her father's face is a nice touch), Rudolph tells Lois he wants her to tell their story. That is, unless she continues to be a pest ... then he'll kill her.

I love Lois in this book. Running for her life, thinking outside the box, not waiting to be rescued, and standing up to this group of madmen, she is her own hero. And even after this threat, she continues to needle this guy. This is Lois.

Rudolph's father appropriated the 'equation' from the Wraith's ship. He then fed the machine an altered equation, one denying the government its total power.

But Ascension has figured out the true equation. And using it, they are able to construct 'Earthstone', quantities of the blue crystal Lois stumbled upon last issue. And that crystal is able to interact with all technology, controlling it. That is how Ascension has been able to do all the things it has been able to do so far ... like commandeering a midflight helicopter's controls.

And they want to use the Earthstone to reset the world, razing it so something new can grow. I find it amazing how many bad guys want to do the 'Ra's Al Ghul from Batman Begins' scenario.

I can't help but wonder if there will be some connection between the Earthstone and Kryptonian Sunstone crystals. They seem to similar to not effect each other. Will that be how Superman wins?

So the Earthstone and Rudolph's origins provide a link, connecting the Superman/Wraith plotline to the Ascension one.  I was wondering how they would eventually overlap. It feels very organic too, not forced.

Meanwhile, back in the Fortress, we start to hear a little bit of Wraith's origins. His home planet is in the Triangulum galaxy. I suppose that makes my Daxam guess all wrong.

But look at that planet. There is a chunk missing out of it. We wouldn't have that detail unless it somehow matters. But how?

Could Wraith be responsible for some major destruction on his world? Is there any life left after such a planet-wide devastation? And does that make Wraith's speech here ... about wanting to bring knowledge and peace to worlds and thinking the USA was the best way to do that ... just lip service?

I have to think there is more to the Wraith than he is letting on. But he has been a 'good soldier' for 75 years. That is a long time to be biding his time if he had something  up his sleeve.

We saw the concept of 'hiding' in the Smallville flashbacks. Here Wraith brings it up, calling Superman's use of Clark as a sort of limbo, a way of trying to live a normal life when he is an outsider. Wraith hints that perhaps Superman would be better used serving his country.

It leads to an imagined sequence where we see Superman staying young while everyone he calls friends age around him. Wraith is pulling at the right strings. This is Clark and he wants to be a man first, super second. He doesn't consider himself above everyone. So being immortal-ish would definitely separate him. And that would be the right psychological tact to have Superman question his mission and life.

Well it turns out that the Wraith does have something up his sleeve. He was hoping that Superman would take him into the Fortress so he could raid its armory for General Lane.

And yet, The Wraith seems conflicted. He doesn't simply pull the trigger. He awaits the order. But he also seems to plead with Superman to give up his current life, to join the Wraith in a life of servitude to his country. I think the Wraith sees Superman as a kindred spirit and is hoping to have a boon companion.

While I think there are more layers to the Wraith than we have been shown, I simply can't wrap my head around him. Why stay on Earth and serve like this? Why was he sent? Where is he really from?

I talked about how this book feels out of synch with the current DCU. Part of that might be the rather 80's feel to Ascension's plot. It is going to fire all the world's nuclear missiles, scorching the Earth. That does feel a bit retro ... no?

And so much for Lois living to tell the tale.

But the threat is enough to pause Wraith from killing Superman and get the attention of the JLA. Now we will see how tightly this links to the New 52.

I do like that first panel, the electronic mask showing an image of the missiles firing while Lois' distorted reflection look on.

Back to a Smallville memory and Clark saving Lana from a deranged farmer who witnessed his flying trick from the first scene. Whether he likes it or not, Clark can't hide anymore, not when he shields Lana from shotgun blasts.

Now the big revelation this issue is the connection of the plots. The minor revelation is the sight of Wraith's planet. And the nuclear devastation plot is retro enough to feel semi-new. What will Superman do once he stops the missiles? Give them back to the countries they were fired from?

So hurray for all those things.

While beautiful and interesting, the flashback scenes and the 'ever-young Clark' sequence didn't seem to resonate enough with this issue to feel crucial. I don't necessarily think these were wasted pages. They just seemed to slow down the pace of the rest of the book. Maybe I needed a pause to digest what I have been shown prior.

Still, this is minor quibbles. This book remains dense and excellent and has a more classic Superman and Lois.

And what is the Wraith's deal? What I do think is that the Luthor-created Jimmy Olsen Doomsday hand is now going to be used to eliminate the Wraith somehow.

Overall grade: B+


Martin Gray said...

An earthstone/sunstone connection sounds about right; if so, a proper definition of what sunstone is would be lovely, it's always seemed a bit nebulous.

I was rather disappointed about the missing Luthor/Jimmy plot this time, though if we must have more callbacks to Smallville, Snyder's connecting to the recent Action comics Lana and Clark jumping bit was clever.

Jay said...

Art: Best Lee work of the series.
Lois: Great
Wraith: Actually warming to the guy a bit.


Superman: Still dull as all get out. He just has no personality to speak of.